(ORDO NEWS) — Cyborg insects have existed for many years, but so far only within the walls of laboratories. However, scientists are step by step bringing radio-controlled arthropods closer to practical applications, and recently a new breakthrough has been made in this area. Advanced technology brings both new opportunities and new dangers.
Scientists from Japan and Singapore have developed a new remote control device for a live Madagascar cockroach. Unlike existing analogues, it is recharged from a solar battery, and almost does not hinder the movements of the animal. This is an important step towards the era of cyborg insects, advancing before our eyes.
Plagiarism in evolution
Where could a tiny, nimble robot capable of crawling through any gap be useful? Wherever a person cannot squeeze through or where it is dangerous for him to be. For example, a miniature assistant could search for people under the rubble. Or examine structures and mechanisms in search of defects and malfunctions.
However, creating a small device capable of moving over a complex surface is not at all easy. And even more difficult is to make it energy efficient. Power supply is generally the Achilles heel of mobile robots, from electric cars to quadcopters, and even more so when lightness and miniaturization are required from the machine. To paraphrase a well-known theological paradox, one might ask, “Can an insect-sized robot be powered by a battery that it can lift itself?”
The answer is disappointing: if it can, then for a very short time. Engineers try to get around this difficulty by organizing power for their offspring from a flexible wire, a laser beam, or wireless networks like Wi-Fi. All of these solutions have drawbacks. The wire has a limited length, it can catch on something or get tangled. The laser beam does not bend after the ward crawled into the gap. Wireless radio waves carry too little energy.
Meanwhile, nature has long ago created maneuverable and extremely energy-efficient devices the size of insects. And these are … the insects themselves. Reinventing the cockroach is just as unnecessary as reinventing the wheel. In terms of movement skills, this creature will give a hundred points ahead not only to a robot, but also to a person trying to keep up with him with a slipper. And these creatures do not have stamina: the red cockroach can withstand a weight 900 times its own. Dead batteries can also not be feared: hardly any fighter with six-legged neighbors managed to starve them to death. True, experimenters still prefer to deal not with domestic Prussians, but with hissing Madagascar cockroaches. These are equally agile and unpretentious, but much larger insects (several centimeters in length).
Cockroach control panel
How to turn a living arthropod into an obedient human instrument? The idea is simple: you need to implant electrodes into the nervous system of the animal and give commands to them. Fortunately, such studies have a long history. Back in the 1960s, experimenters instantly calmed an angry bull with an electric prick in the right area of the brain. But the brain of an insect is much more primitive than the brain of a mammal, so it should be easier to take control.
However, in practice, things are not so rosy. According to data four years ago, typical cyborg insects respond incorrectly to about half of the commands. The authors of a new study demonstrate in a spectacular video five successful examples of controlling a cockroach (a command given via Bluetooth made it turn to the right). However, they neatly sidestep the question of how many attempts were made in total.
However, this scientific work is not devoted to the control of the insect brain as such. The experimenters took care of something else – that the control device did not hamper movements and was provided with energy.
Beast of burden
The cockroach does not need electricity, but the cockroach control system does. Of course, in a much smaller volume than a whole insect-like robot, but even this small energy must be taken from somewhere. Some scientists have tried to extract it using the movements of the insect or its biochemistry. However, so far such devices do not produce even a milliwatt, and this is too small for a neural interface.
This time, the researchers powered the device with a lithium polymer battery, which in turn is charged by an organic solar cell. This duo delivers 17.2mW of power, which is plenty for a control system. The battery allows the device to work even in the dark, and to recharge, the cyborg needs to go out into the sun for about half an hour.
A separate pride of engineers is a harness with which electronics is attached to a cockroach. It was designed to fit the exact shape of the insect’s body and 3D printed from a flexible polymer. The researchers took into account that the chitinous shell changes shape when walking and its scales partially overlap.
Such a high-tech harness almost does not constrain the movements of the insect. And if you turn the cockroach on its back, it gets up on its own in more than 80% of cases. As the researchers emphasize, this is their brainchild compares favorably with other similar systems.
True, in order for a cyborg cockroach to turn from a toy into an assistant, you also need a payload – some kind of cameras or sensors. They, too, will require power and space on the cockroach’s back. So the current development is at best a prototype of useful devices. But if the miniaturization of electronics continues at its current pace, we have every chance of seeing radio-controlled cockroaches in action. The only question is whether you should be happy about it.
Double edged stick
Cyborg insects can become faithful assistants not only to rescuers and engineers, but also to attackers. If a cockroach can carry a sensor to inspect pipes, why not carry a microphone to eavesdrop on conversations? The tracking device can be made miniature even today, but in order to install it in someone else’s apartment or office, you need to get into it. It’s hard for a human to do this unnoticed, but what about an insect? That’s when the word “bug” will take on a literal meaning!
Throwing banned substances to an enemy will also become easier and safer for an attacker than it is now. According to the current legislation, the mass of heroin over 0.5 g is already a “significant amount”, and over 2.5 g is “large”. And for some substances, the “significant size” is another 10–25 times smaller. One or more flights of an insect courier – and under your closet a reason for criminal prosecution. A dose of poison in a sugar bowl can also be arranged. And these are just the most obvious of the unpleasant prospects.
Cyborg insects are a great tool. But since the monkey picked up the first stone, every tool can be used for good or for evil. As society explores new opportunities, it also has to deal with new threats. It is very important not to forget about this side of the coin.
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